Background: The CFR and its Grand Strategy China Report
The Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) is the think tank of monopoly-finance capital, Wall Street’s think tank. It is also a membership organization: the ultimate networking, socializing, strategic-planning, and consensus-forming institution of the dominant sector of the U.S. capitalist class. The CFR’s activities help unite the capitalist class to become not just a class in itself, but also a class for itself. It is the world’s most powerful private organization, the “high command” body of the U.S. plutocracy. The Council has an almost century-long history of forming study groups to plan the United States’ overall “grand” strategic policies. It sets the agenda for debate, builds consensus among both the powerful and attentive publics, and then inserts its own network of people into public office to implement its favored doctrines in the real world.2 One of its latest efforts, a study group on U.S. grand strategy toward China, completed its work and issued a report in March 2015—approved by the CFR board of directors—entitled Revising U.S. Grand Strategy Toward China. This report used the term “dangerous circumstances” to describe the growing tensions between the world’s most powerful two nations.3
A key reason to follow the CFR and its activities is that it represents a unique window into the debates within the capitalist ruling class of the United States about both what represents a crisis, and how to handle one, especially regarding strategic and economic questions. Knowing about the policy debates within ruling circles allows the possibility of popular forces intervening and influencing the outcome of such debates.
The study group that produced recommendations for a new U.S. policy toward China had forty-three members: thirty-six men and seven women. Two study group members, Robert D. Blackwill of the CFR and Ashley J. Tellis of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, wrote the report. Blackwill, a CFR member and Trilateral Commissioner, is currently the Henry A. Kissinger Senior Fellow for U.S. Foreign Policy at the Council. He was U.S. ambassador to India (2001–2003) and served in the George W. Bush administration as a strategic planner at the National Security Council and presidential envoy to Iraq. He is the co-author of a forthcoming book on geoeconomics and statecraft. Tellis, who was educated at the University of Bombay and the University of Chicago, is also a Council member whose career has alternated between the private policy-planning sector of capitalist class institutions like RAND, the National Bureau of Asian Research, and Carnegie, along with government advisory work at the National Security Council and the U.S. embassy in New Delhi, India. He is a co-author of a book on interpreting China’s grand strategy.4
Thirty-two of the forty-three members of this study group (74.4 percent) are members of the CFR. Other prominent U.S. think tanks also had representation, including the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Center for New American Security, Hudson Institute, RAND, Woodrow Wilson School, Brookings, Heritage Foundation, Atlantic Council, American Enterprise Institute, Hoover Institution, and Manhattan Institute. Most of these other think tank members are also members of the Council, however, as are a number of former senior U.S. government officials serving on the study group. Besides Blackwill and Tellis, these include Paul D. Wolfowitz, Douglas J. Feith, and Graham T. Allison (Defense Department); James B. Steinberg, Philip D. Zelikow, and Richard N. Cooper (State Department); John Deutch and John E. McLaughlin (CIA); and I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby (Office of the Vice President). Wolfowitz and Steinberg appear to be especially important, because both served as deputy secretaries in their government service, Wolfowitz to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and Steinberg to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Wolfowitz is also a key adviser to current presidential candidate Jeb Bush.5 A leading neoconservative, Wolfowitz is also well known as a strategic planner for both the Bush I and II administrations and a key figure in the decision to go to war against Iraq in 2003. Feith, Libby, Blackwill, and Zelikow also played important roles in the Iraq disaster.6
The study group also had university professors from leading institutions such as Harvard, Johns Hopkins, the Elliott School of International Affairs, Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, MIT, New York University, the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service and Syracuse, but only a few from the media (most prominently the New York Times), and corporations.7 In line with most of its personnel, the orientation of this study group can be characterized as geopolitical and geoeonomic “great power” politics, with less emphasis on purely economic concerns. As a whole, this study group has an aggressively imperialist view of the “national interest” of the United States.
The Council, in its report, has chosen to focus attention on the current chapter of an old story in international politics: a still very powerful but gradually declining nation’s attempt to maintain its hegemony, its “primacy” against the attempts of a rising power to begin to push it aside. China is seen as the strongest of the world’s nations that are dissatisfied with the status quo set up by the Second World War and the post-war years. In the CFR view, China now wants to be a rule maker not the rule taker, and its moves to set up bases of control in the South and East China Seas, use its currency in international business, and handle its economic strength to influence other nations, represents an existential threat to U.S. hegemony.8 As such, they believe it must be faced head on despite the “dangerous circumstances” this entails.
The grand strategy study group report can be divided into a foreword and four sections. These are the study group’s worldview, views on China’s grand strategy, recommendations on U.S. grand strategy, and a conclusion. The foreword, by CFR’s President Richard N. Haass, endorses the report by stating that although the authors themselves expect that their “analysis and recommendations alike will be controversial…. Whatever the reaction or reactions, Revisiting U.S. Grand Strategy Toward China deserves to become an important part of the debate about U.S. foreign policy and the pivotal U.S.-China relationship.”9
An Imperialist and Hegemonic Worldview
Early in their report, the study group and its authors (there are no dissents from any of the forty-three participants mentioned anywhere in the report) express their underlying view about the true role of the United States in the world. This perspective is one of U.S. global hegemony, and the prevention of the rise of any potential future global competitor. They call this “primacy”: “preserving U.S. primacy in the global system ought to remain the central objective of U.S. grand strategy in the twenty-first century.”10 This imperialist and hegemonic worldview is seen as consistent with U.S. history as a whole: “Since its founding, the United States has consistently pursued a grand strategy focused on acquiring and maintaining preeminent power over various rivals, first on the North American continent, then in the Western Hemisphere, and finally globally.”11 Now the United States must fundamentally change its policy to aggressively balance China’s rise, since China is the only world power that could threaten U.S. “primacy…the U.S. position at the apex of the global hierarchy.”12 The CFR and its study group also assume that the United States and other Western countries are democracies, using the terms “free markets overseen by democratic regimes” to describe what are actually governments and economies run by and for extremely wealthy capitalist classes in the United States and other Western nations.13
China’s Grand Strategy
The study group and its two report authors believe that a lack of understanding of China’s own grand strategy is a key source of what they consider a seriously mistaken U.S. grand strategy. Their view is that China’s primary strategic goal is to accumulate “comprehensive national power,” that is power in many key aspects: economic, military, technological, and diplomatic.14 Since its quest for comprehensive national power is still incomplete, China currently seeks to avoid confrontation with the United States and the international system it dominates. But the CFR study group believes that China has “geopolitical ambitions to undermine U.S. primacy” and wants to realize “the goal of recovering from the United States the primacy it once enjoyed in Asia as a prelude to exerting global influence in the future.”15 The CFR report authors quote Chinese theorists to the effect that China’s goals include world power as part of the “total rejuvenation of the Chinese nation,” part of an assertion of Chinese superiority as the “sole sovereign government of the world…the central, civilized part.”16
The CFR report sees four means that China is using to achieve the goal of replacing the United States as the primary Asian and eventually world power. The first one is to preserve the legitimacy of China’s internal order. It does this through a combination of gradually increasing prosperity for the majority of the people and the coercion of a huge internal security force, the People’s Armed Police.17 Secondly, Chinese leaders want to foster the material conditions needed to preserve this internal order: a high economic growth rate.18 This also provides external benefits, called “unnerving strategic consequences” by Blackwill and Tellis: “in the form of a growing military and deferential neighbors who fear the economic losses that might arise from any political opposition to China.”19 This is seen by the CFR and its study group as a key long-term danger to U.S. primacy: the gradual loss of key economic, political, and military allies. The third means is labeled “pacify the periphery” in order to “entrench Chinese dominance in the Indo-Pacific for decades to come.”20 In the view of the CFR, Beijing plans to achieve this by establishing deep economic ties to Asian neighbors, making common cause with Russia, modernizing its military forces, and trying to undermine the legitimacy of the U.S. alliance system in Asia, labeling it as anachronistic.21 The fourth and final means is for China to cement its status as a central actor in the world system as a member of the U.N. Security Council, and as the organizer of international economic ventures that rival the global institutions set up by the United States after the Second World War.22 In sum, the CFR study group and its authors conclude that China is not in the process of becoming just another “trading state,” but rather it intends to “continue along the path to becoming a conventional great power with the full panoply of political and military capabilities, all oriented toward realizing the goal of recovering from the United States the primacy it once enjoyed in Asia as a prelude to exerting global influence in the future.”23
U.S. Vital Interests and Grand Strategy: Policy Recommendations
Given the central objective of preserving U.S. global hegemony, its “preeminence in the global system,” the CFR study group concludes that the “principal task that confronts U.S. grand strategy today…is adapting to the fundamental challenge posed by China’s continuing rise.”24 Calling Washington’s current policy “integration”—trying to bring Beijing into the liberal international world order—a failure, the study group proposes to replace “integration” with what they call “balancing.”25 Taken together, the specific alternative policies advocated by the CFR amount to a “robust U.S. grand strategy toward China.”26 First, in the economic and technical areas, the United States should “vitalize the U.S. economy,” to create “robust economic growth” in the United States, but the report is silent on how exactly this should be done.27 The Obama administration should also deliver on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement (excluding China) and “immediately” institute a new technological regime toward Beijing, with “the aim of tightening restrictions on the sales of militarily critical technologies to China, including duel-use technologies.”28 In addition, the new U.S. strength in the energy field, due to the success of fracking, should be turned into “lasting geopolitical gains in Asia” by eliminating constraints on selling gas and oil to friends and allies, but obviously restrictions must be maintained in regard to China.29
Secondly, the current U.S. edge in military power should be strengthened by “substantially” increasing Washington’s military budget while maintaining the existing dominance of the United States over China in nuclear arms, drones, and undersea warfare. The United States should also reform the military’s force design to blunt China’s military advances and accelerate U.S. ballistic missile defense posture and network in the Pacific Ocean.30 Washington should also employ more aggressive military tactics, including taking the following steps:
- “reiterate its insistence on freedom of navigation and overflight, including in exclusive economic zones, for military as well as civilian ships and planes, and challenge Beijing appropriately if those norms are violated.”
- “intensify a consistent U.S. naval and air presence in the South and East China Seas.”
- “increase the frequency and duration of naval exercises with South China Sea littoral states.”31
Third, Washington should end its “passivity” and institute a get-tough approach with regard to China’s “incessant cyber-attacks.” Recommended measures include a tariff on Chinese goods, as well as better cyber defenses and imposing a policy of “equivalence” through an increase in U.S. cyber offense capabilities and actions.32
Fourth, to “defeat” China’s “corrosive” efforts to “undermine” the bilateral relations between the United States and a number of Asian nations, Washington should “reinforce” its alliance system in the Indo-Pacific region, especially with Japan, South Korea, Australia, India, Taiwan, and six Southeast Asian states (the Philippines, Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, Vietnam, and Myanmar).33 The Japan-U.S. relationship is viewed as central to maintaining U.S. domination in Asia: “without close and enduring U.S.-Japanese security cooperation, it is difficult to see how the United States could maintain its present power and influence in Asia.”34 Therefore, the study group and its authors recommend intensifying its already close military and geopolitical relationship with Japan, helping to upgrade the Japanese armed forces, and increasing cooperation and coordination between the two nations on military planning concepts such as air-sea battle and ballistic missile defense. This should result in Washington “substantially expanding its security relationship with Japan, encompassing all of Asia…supporting Japan’s cooperation with Vietnam, Australia, India and other nations concerned with the rise of Chinese power.”35
South Korea (officially called the Republic of Korea, ROK), is listed as second in importance behind Japan, and its relationship with the United States is called “essential” to maintaining U.S. dominance in Asia. Therefore Washington should ensure “adequate military capabilities” are in place there. In addition, and quite provocative to Beijing, the study group report recommends advancing a “shared vision for dealing with Korean unification,” one that would “include working with the ROK (and Japan) to develop a comprehensive strategy for regime change in North Korea.”36
Australia, called an “essential link in the U.S. Indo-Pacific strategy,” is listed third.37 Among the goals for a strengthened U.S.-Australian relationship are:
- using the Stirling naval base near Perth to support an increased U.S. naval force structure in the region;
- building up the Indian Ocean Australian territory of Cocos Islands as a joint base for surveillance aircraft and drones;
- increasing military cooperation and deployments of U.S. military personnel in Australia; and
- upgrading the U.S.-Australia free trade agreement, and definitely including Australia in the TPP.38
India is mentioned as the fourth key nation that the United States should intensify its bilateral relationship with. India is viewed as a country that can independently counter China’s rise and the United States should encourage this by “substantially” loosening restraints on military technology transfers to India, “regard Indian nuclear technology as an asset in maintaining the current balance of power in Asia,” and “markedly increase” U.S.-India military cooperation.39 In addition, the United States should “vigorously support” India’s policy of strengthening its power projection and influence into East and Southeast Asia.40
Finally, the study group report also recommends building up the military power of Taiwan and six Southeast Asian nations, since they are the primary targets of China’s power expansion into the South China Sea. Recommended measures range from pushing harder for “defense reform” in the Philippines; to expanding joint international military exercises with Indonesia, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Myanmar; to improving air force fighters for Singapore; to expanding the “strategic International Military Exchange Training” throughout Southeast Asia.41 Taiwan should be provided with arms of a “defensive character,” including transport and intelligence aircraft, as well as upgrades for its ships and/or land-based missile defense systems.42
The fifth aspect of a new U.S. grand strategy is a focus on diplomacy, to attempt to “mitigate the inherently profound tensions as the two nations pursue mutually incompatible grand strategies.”43 Part of this would be to reassure U.S. friends and allies worldwide that Washington is doing “everything it can to avoid a confrontation with Beijing.”44 The CFR report goes on to point out the possibility of serious “negative consequences” with respect to the “domestic challenges” facing both countries, the world economy, climate change, and controlling nuclear weapons—if the two nations were to mismanage their relationship.45 To try to prevent such mismanagement, the study group recommends a focus on joint discussions of a few unspecified issues that could make a “positive contribution” toward improving the bilateral diplomatic relationship while avoiding lectures on human rights.46 “Senior individuals” such as CFR leaders and former top government officials, former National Security Adviser Thomas Donilon and former Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick, should conduct these discussions. This is because of the reality, pointed out by the report, that strategic policies are not “primarily designed” by the foreign and defense ministries of each nation, and so “the current means of bilateral interaction are not adequate for the task.”47
Study Group Conclusions
In their concluding section the study group and its authors answer what they see as possible objections to their analysis and recommendations. They argue that “U.S. vital national interests” are not being adequately protected by the current U.S. policy of integration, and that China’s rise and possible displacement of the United States “as the leading power in Asia,” with “strategic primacy” sacrifices vital U.S. interests.48 In other words, the crux of the matter, the “disturbing fact” that they see, is that under current U.S. policy, China has “increased its national power in ways that potentially deeply threaten U.S. national interests in the long term” and must be responded to with “much more robust U.S. policies and power projection into Asia” in order to protect its “profound” national interests.49 The report authors admit that these policy prescriptions amount to a “fundamental” policy departure and as such creates risks, but argue that these risks are “substantially smaller” than the current “inadequate” response to the rise of Chinese power.50 The stakes are extremely high they argue, involving the “capacity of the United States to deal successfully with this systematic geoeconomic, military, and diplomatic challenge by China to U.S. primacy in Asia,” which “will determine the shape of the international order for decades to come.”51 The study group and its authors state at the end of their report that U.S. control of Asia and the larger world is really a question of political will: “the central question concerning the future of Asia is whether the United States will have the political will, the geoeconomic, military, and diplomatic capabilities; and crucially, the right grand strategy to deal with China to protect vital U.S. national interests.”52 Put more bluntly, CFR believes that the United States should maintain hegemony in Asia as well as the rest of the world and China should be prevented from exercising power even on a regional level, within its own surrounding environment.
Critique: What Is the “National Interest” of the United States?
The CFR in general and this study group and its report authors specifically are engaging in the fiction that the “national interest” is an objective fact. In reality the United States is a class, race, and gender divided society, where different groups have sharply different interests. So the definition of the “national interest” from which their proposed policies—”primacy” toward China and the rest of the world—flow is actually the special, narrow, capitalist class interest, representing the small but powerful U.S. plutocracy. The CFR promotes and hides behind secrecy and super-nationalism, making key decisions behind the scenes and attempting to convince the larger population to support their preferred policies through appeals to patriotic feelings. The aggressive policies they propose toward China—involving the promotion of military power, including significantly higher military spending, additional bases, building up the armed forces of Asian allies, and implied threats to use force—are not really in the national interest of the United States. This group, led by a number of people like Wolfowitz, Libby, and Blackwill, who were disastrously wrong on Iraq a little over a decade ago, are trying to put us on the road to dangerous great power conflict.
In some ways, it represents a path similar to what happened a century ago, when the European branch of capitalist civilization entered upon a phase of suicidal destruction beginning with the First World War. This was also based on great power rivalry, and a narrow, often super-nationalist, definition of the national interest of each European country involved. There was a large element of delusional thinking involved one hundred years ago, especially on the part of the leaders of Germany, Russia, Austro-Hungary, and the Ottoman Empire. Similarly, the CFR and its study group assume that U.S. power is nearly limitless, when in fact U.S. power is limited and confrontation best avoided. In fact, the United States shares the planet with other powers, most prominently China, that refuse to be intimidated by either U.S. strength or will. The path proposed by the CFR in this report is thus also based on deluded thinking and will therefore likely prove to be disastrous in practice, possibly leading to an Asian arms race, growing conflict, and great power war. But if Washington gives up its goal of “primacy,” adopts a more realistic assessment of U.S. power, and becomes aware of the dangers to humanity and the planet posed by nuclear confrontation and a rapidly developing ecological crisis, then managing differences and nurturing widespread cooperation between nations for the advancement of humankind becomes possible.
Given the twin existential threats to higher life on our planet—nuclear war and ecological destruction—the very idea of the “national interest” should be junked in favor of a broader conception, focusing on the interests of humanity and the planet as a whole. Cooperation to deal with these threats—among the great powers especially—then becomes the focus. The CFR report’s recommendations thus represent the opposite of what is now required for the long-term survival of life on earth. Their policy suggestions heighten the danger of nuclear war and, since military activities would be seriously accelerated, the carbon pollution that drives dangerous climate change would increase.
Beyond the National Interest: What Are the Interests of Humanity and the Planet?
Humanity faces a dire situation, an ecological planetary emergency characterized not only by rapid climate change, but also ocean acidification, loss of biodiversity, degradation of freshwater sources, chemical pollution, and disappearing forest cover. Science tells us that if we stay on the present emissions path, in only a few decades there is a high probability of runaway global warming, making civilized life problematic on a hotter and hotter planet. The survival of billions of people, future generations, and the human species itself will all be imperiled. The root source of the problem is not raised in the meetings of this or any other CFR study group: the nature of the grow-or-die capitalist system and its supposed market magic, which requires large-scale state support and vast amounts of fossil-fuel consumption to maintain and expand itself through its endless chain of production, transportation, exchange, and capital accumulation. Since we live on a finite earth, this system cannot and will not grow forever. To avert a catastrophe, nothing short of an ecological, fully democratic socialist revolution against the reign of capital will now do the job, and this requires the greatest revolutionary mass movement in human history. We are now in the midst of an epochal crisis, and the freely associated workers and farmers, together with the entire population, organized democratically in assemblies and councils in workplaces and communities, need to demand and help to institute the state planning, degrowth, reduced consumption (especially for the capitalist class in the richer nations), and egalitarian policies that are now needed. Only with a new mode of production and consumption can fossil-fuel mining and burning be brought down to the very low level required for the preservation of our life-sustaining biosphere. Only with a new mode of production can the impacts to our atmosphere, oceans, forests, land, and waterways be mitigated and the natural world that we all depend upon restored. This new path is in the interest of the vast majority of the people of the world and the fragile planet that we live on, and this is the global interest that we must now relentlessly pursue.53
- ↩Robert D. Blackwill and Ashley J. Tellis, Revising U.S. Grand Strategy Toward China (New York: Council on Foreign Relations, 2015), http://cfr.org, 4.
- ↩For a detailed analysis of the CFR, its worldview and policies, see Laurence H. Shoup, Wall Street’s Think Tank: The Council on Foreign Relations and the Empire of Neoliberal Geopolitics 1976-2014 (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2015).
- ↩Blackwill and Tellis, Revising U.S. Grand Strategy Toward China, 38.
- ↩Ibid, 45–46; CFR, Annual Report 2014, http://cfr.org, 41, 60, 82.
- ↩See David Corn, “The Jeb Bush Adviser Who Should Scare You,” Mother Jones, May 13, 2015, http://motherjones.com.
- ↩For a detailed study of the CFR and the war in Iraq, see Shoup, Wall Street’s Think Tank, chapter 6; additional data on the important roles these study group members played in the U.S. disaster in Iraq see James Mann, Rise of the Vulcans: the History of Bush’s War Cabinet (New York: Penguin Books, 2004); Ivo H. Daalder and James M. Lindsay, America Unbound: The Bush Revolution in Foreign Policy (Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 2005); and L. Paul Bremer III, My Year in Iraq; The Struggle to Build a Future of Hope (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2006).
- ↩Blackwill and Tellis, Revising U.S. Grand Strategy Toward China, 47–48.
- ↩The international business press is also stressing a similar view of China’s ambitions. For example, Financial Times’ columnist Philip Stephens wrote: “Beijing intends to be a rulemaker as much as a rule-taker. Even as it competes with the United States in East Asia, it looks set on becoming pre-eminent in Eurasia. The west has to decide whether to become a stakeholder in someone else’s project.” (“,” Financial Times, May 29, 2015, 18). Another article in the same issue of the Financial Times also notes that Renminbi use is surging, and has now outstripped the yen and dollar, for transactions with China in the Asia-Pacific region; see Philip Stephens, “Now China Makes the Rules,” 7.
- ↩Blackwill and Tellis, Revising U.S. Grand Strategy Toward China, xiii–ix.
- ↩Ibid, 4.
- ↩Ibid, 6.
- ↩Ibid, 18.
- ↩Ibid, 12; see Shoup, Wall Street’s Think Tank for a detailed study of some of the ways the U.S. capitalist class rules in the formally “democratic” United States.
- ↩Blackwill and Tellis, Revising U.S. Grand Strategy Toward China, 7.
- ↩Ibid, 17.
- ↩Ibid, 8.
- ↩Ibid, 9–10.
- ↩Ibid, 10–11.
- ↩Ibid, 12–13.
- ↩Ibid, 13.
- ↩Ibid, 14.
- ↩Ibid, 15–16.
- ↩Ibid, 17.
- ↩Ibid, 18.
- ↩Ibid, 23.
- ↩Ibid, 25.
- ↩Ibid, 24.
- ↩Ibid, 26.
- ↩Ibid, 27.
- ↩Ibid, 27–31.
- ↩Ibid, 28.
- ↩Ibid, 28–29.
- ↩Ibid, 29.
- ↩Ibid, 30.
- ↩Ibid, 30–31.
- ↩Ibid, 31.
- ↩Ibid, 31–32.
- ↩Ibid, 32.
- ↩Ibid, 32–33.
- ↩Ibid, 35.
- ↩Ibid, 36.
- ↩Ibid, 37.
- ↩Ibid, 20.
- ↩Ibid, 39.
- ↩For more information and analysis on the current world ecological crisis and revolutionary alternatives see especially the following: John Bellamy Foster, Brett Clark, and Richard York, The Ecological Rift (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2010); John Bellamy Foster, “Why Ecological Revolution,” Monthly Review 61, no. 8 (January 2010): 1-18; John Bellamy Foster, “The Epochal Crisis,” Monthly Review 65, no. 5 (October 2013): 1–12; Fred Magdoff, “Ecological Civilization,” Monthly Review 62, no. 8 (January 2011): 1–25; Joel Kovel, The Enemy of Nature (New York: Zed Books, 2007); Chris Williams, Ecology and Socialism (Chicago: Haymarket Book, 2010); Shoup, Wall Street’s Think Tank, 299–314. See also , which has posted copies of three important manifestos: the “Belem Ecosocialist Declaration” (2007); the “Universal Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth” (2010); and the “Draft Universal Declaration of the Common Good of Humanity” (2013).